Vietnamese food is blowing all the way up. It first came onto my “must try” radar a few years ago, but when I began scheduling Vietnam into my trip, the cuisine was an enormous contributing factor to my excitement.
In Ho Chi Minh City I created a long list of dishes I wanted to try, which expanded as I found new local dishes. Unless I converted the entire trip into a dedicated food tour, it would have been impossible to try everything. But with Alessio’s help, I crossed off a lot of things!
Bun Thit Nuong
Bun Thit Nuong was my first meal in Vietnam. We ate in a snazzy cafe called Mc2 where the food was reasonably priced. Bun thit nuong is amazing. A leafy salad speckled with peanuts, and slices of pork sit on a bed of vermicelli noodles and crisp beansprouts. A great dish, and definite favourite.
So I knew I wouldn’t like banh mi – or banh my as it is spelt in North Vietnam. I’m not a huge sandwich eater, and when I do go for sandwiches I like very very simple ones. Banh mi has too much going on for my preferences, but Alessio tried it. He didn’t like it, in fact. There was a particular flavour he couldn’t get on with, and we both attributed it to the pate. Since everyone loves banh mi, I suggested he try another later.
He tried it again in Hanoi, where the doner kebab banh my are ubiquitous. He loves a doner kebab, so this was sure to be a winner, right? Almost. He liked it more than the last, but he still complained about a certain flavour.
Later, when I was eating the claypot pork below, Alessio complained that it wasn’t very nice and had the flavour of the banh mi. I had been happily scooping out the herbs but gave him a taster of the dish with a lot of herbs. I realised the flavour he hated was one I reviled equally. Coriander.
I think he may have enjoyed another without the coriander (cilantro), but by this point his patience for giving banh mi the banhifit of the doubt had worn out.
Shrimp com tam
“But it’s just normal rice!” Alessio wailed, when I rejoiced in finally finding a stall that sold the dish.
“No!” I snapped. “Can’t you see the grains are smaller!”
Finding com tam rice was a big deal for me, because the idea of “broken rice” sounded so cool. Com tam is rice made from normal grains that have broken. It’s popular and cheaper for locals to buy and eat. The texture was similar to cous cous, and I really enjoyed it. The only issue was that the stall I chose only had a small selection of accompanying meats, and since I could only safely identify the shrimps as not being beef, that’s what I ate. The shrimps were too tiny to deshell, so it did feel a bit like eating insects! I would love to try the dish again but with a different meat.
Pho is probably the most famous Vietnamese dish, so of course it made its way onto the list. The most well known type and widely available contains beef, which I don’t eat, but we found some pho ga which I tried.
Although I expected not to like noodle soups a lot, this was pretty nice!
Caramel clay pot pork
The favourite dish.
Thit kho to dau was listed on my food bucket list as “Caramel pork soup in claypot” but the dish I tried wasn’t really a soup, more just caramel pork in a claypot.
We took the meal at Mamma’s Gourmet Cooking School in Hoi An. It was truly phenomenal and probably the best Asian dish of the entire trip. The dish took a while to come, as all good meals tend to do, but when it arrived it was beautifully laid out, with pretty utensils, salad, rice and rice paper.
It was great, with complex flavours and sweet, tender pork. I can’t recommend the dish or the restaurant enough!
Cao Lau is a Hoi An specialty. Thick noodles, thinly sliced pork almost like char siu, and salad leaves in a dark broth. I tried it in a restaurant I seemed to always be attracted to and wasn’t at all disappointed! Hoi An is the only place you can try it, and it’s directly linked with folk tales about the wells in the city so it really is special!
We had a few other dishes off the bucket list too, but also we didn’t get to try everything we wanted to. Xoi ga, hu tieu and bun bo hué have firmly been pinned on the “for next time” list.
What I really liked about Vietnamese food was that it was really fun to explore and try. Different cities and regions had different speciality dishes and finding them was a treasure hunt.
The flavour profiles are mostly familiar if you’ve been travelling in South East Asia for a while – expect ginger, lemongrass, honey, and unfortunately coriander alongside many others. The combinations are complex and versatile across dishes and regions. Influences come from its neighbours such as China, as well as its colonial history with France.
Exploring Vietnamese food was one of my favourite parts of being in Vietnam!